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African film festival turns 40 with pride

 A technician gets ready to start a projection for the jury during the competition of Africa
A technician gets ready to start a projection for the jury during the competition of Africa's top cinema festival FESPACO in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, March 2, 2005. REUTERS/ Ouaba Yemi Ahmed
— image credit: Reuters

By Katrina Manson

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Big-screen tales of township gangsters and cattle-preying lions compete at next week's 40th anniversary FESPACO Pan-African film festival, showcasing the continent's wide-ranging cinematic talent.

Far from the red carpets and paparazzi of Cannes and Venice, film lovers will throng movie halls in dusty Burkina Faso, where every two years cinema comes to the masses in one of the world's poorest countries.

"There's no other festival in the world like it -- it's a populist event," said head judge Gaston Kabore, himself a popular director from Burkina Faso.

"When people can't get in because the theatres are full, they just grab a beer and mill around with the filmmakers, drinking in the atmosphere," he told Reuters in an interview.

Conference halls have been transformed into cinemas for the week and in outlying districts of the capital Ouagadougou viewers will perch on concrete pews in open-air theatres beneath the Sahelian star-scape for 200 CFA ($0.40) apiece.

Instead of the usual imported kick-flicks and Bollywood blockbusters on show at disheveled cinema halls, FESPACO offers a broad wealth of African imagery.

"African films are always full. We don't like all the special effects from Hollywood ... We are proud to see ourselves and want to do it ourselves too," said Moumini Sawadogo, a 28-year-old IT worker.

DREAMS AND HARDSHIP

"My big dream is to become a filmmaker ... Cinema is the way I can express myself and what I see," said Sawadogo. He has written a film script about the broken dreams of Africans who head to Europe only to have to be bailed out by family at home.

Burkina Faso, landlocked, dependent on subsistence farming and so earthy the capital's magenta flowers flail under thick dust, suffers many hardships that typify Africa's image overseas.

Its film-loving leftist revolutionary president Thomas Sankara once called the country "the quintessence of all the misfortunes of the peoples." Sankara was assassinated in 1987.

Nurtured by ties to France, its former colonial master, and Soviet funding and training during the Cold War, the West African state built up a cinema culture in the 1960s, later winning awards at festivals abroad. FESPACO launched in 1969.

"We come from very great cultural riches but we have lost a lot of ourselves through the traumatic experience of colonialism and for many other reasons. We need our own patterns and paradigms to look at the world; that way we can really repossess ourselves," Kabore said.

Highlighting the achievements of African cinema, this year's festival will include a special celebration of the work of Senegalese director and fisherman's son Ousmane Sembene, a father of African film who died in 2007.

Even so, lack of funds makes it hard to bring films to the few cinemas from Senegal to Swaziland. The last big screen in Cameroon, a country of 18.5 million people, shut down last month.

Feature films competing for this year's Etalon d'Or de Yennenga, the "African Oscar" fashioned after the legendary horsewoman founder of Burkina Faso's biggest ethnic group, range from a superstitious tale of an albino murdered for his head to incest in a poor Afrikaner family in South Africa.

Other categories include short films, television and video, sitcoms, documentaries and entries from the African diaspora.

"People get lost in thinking Africa is one big country," said Keith Shiri, director of Britain's Africa at the Pictures.

"Likewise African film is not a genre -- there's sci-fi, melodrama, romance, political satire, you can find anything."

(Editing by Alistair Thomson)

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